The first known Bahá’í in the Greater Manchester area – or in the whole of the North of England it seems – was called Sarah Ann Ridgway.
Sarah Ann was a loom-worker from Stalybridge who later settled in Pendleton, near Salford. Manchester and its surrounding towns were heavily dependent on textile industries, such as cotton, at this time. It was a turbulent time. The American civil war, the industry’s links to slavery, and the cotton famine in the 1860s deeply unsettled employment in the region, leading to rioting and poverty.
This instability and poor prospects may have been what led Sarah Ann to emigrate to the States, perhaps seeking work and a new life. Her father had also had the foresight to train her as a silk weaver, an industry apparently less vulnerable to the troubles of the time than cotton. Whatever the reasons, Sarah Ann left Liverpool’s Albert Dock on a ship bound for America sometime during the 1880s.
Sarah Ann grew up in contact with Unitarians, seemingly inspired by new ideas of religious freedom and reform. After arriving in the States she came met Bahá’ís there and found out about Bahá’í teachings. Sarah Ann declared her faith in Baltimore, Maryland, in a letter to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, dated 3 September 1899.
She returned to the UK around 1903/04. Why she did so is unclear; perhaps due to the death of her father or a wish to keep in contact with the family she was forced to leave behind when she went to America.
Sadly there are many gaps in what we know about Sarah Ann. She was not rich or famous so little is known about her. We are very fortunate however that Madeline Hellaby in 2003 wrote a book about Sarah Ann, published by George Ronald. What we do know about Sarah Ann mainly comes from Madeline’s painstaking research.
What is clear is that Sarah Ann had quite a passion for education and learning. She corresponded with people in both English and French. She wrote religious articles for presentation in local churches upon her return to the UK. She also kept in touch with and inspired the local Bahá’í communities emerging around Greater Manchester.
After such a fascinating life, Sarah Ann passed away in 1913. It is not known why but she was buried in the same plot with many other souls of limited material means, in a pauper’s grave in Agecroft Cemetery, Salford. A bench has been kindly dedicated at her graveside by the Salford Bahá’ís.